Sharing the floor – is social media helping women to find their voice?

BBC news presenter Emily Maitlis hesitates to speak up in male companyIt is now a couple of weeks since an article in the American Political Science review, asserting that women speak less than men in group discussions, made headlines in the UK’s national media.

The article itself is not for the casual reader, and I would have thought that it would be difficult for anyone who has attended a mixed gathering of more than five people to be remotely surprised by its conclusions.

There have been many different theories put forward as to why it is that women tend to be quieter than men in discussions (my personal favourite is that women are more inclined to encourage others to express their opinions while men like to communicate status by talking loudly) but nobody could say that it was a shocking revelation.

It is odd, then, that the communications industry should boast more women than men.  According to a report published by the House of Commons library earlier this year, women outnumber men in print and online journalism, and completely dominate the field in public relations.

The only area in the sector where women are significantly outnumbered is in broadcast – back to that talking thing, perhaps.  Or perhaps the PR and journalism industries just attract the only loud-mouthed women in society.  More likely, however, is that the majority of communication between humans does not take place in group meetings.  It is interesting to see how social media, as the newest platform, appears to be levelling the playing field.

Statistics on social media usage are not wholly consistent.  It’s not always possible to tell whether someone is male or female if they aren’t going by their real name, but several organisations have had a stab at it and have come up with largely similar results.  Mashable published some statistics from Online MBA this year which revealed that overall, women use social media more than men.  The report concluded that around 57% of Facebook users and 59% of Twitter users are women and that at the two ends of the social media spectrum, Pinterest is 82% women and Google+ is around 71% men.  LinkedIn is more or less evenly balanced.

So why is this? The female domination of Pinterest appears easy to explain, since the site is primarily about pictures of crafts, hobbies, interior design and fashion, all of which are traditionally girl-friendly things. Google+’s popularity among men may have something to do with the fact that its users are primarily engineers and developers, 50% of them aged 24 or less.  Which leaves Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook as spaces where women clearly feel as comfortable as men at expressing themselves, if not more so.  This is in spite of the highly publicised “troll” attacks on women using Twitter and high level of bullying incidents on Facebook.

Things have moved on since the 1950s. We laugh at Mad Men because of the absurdly sexist world it depicts, but there are still many circumstances where women’s voices are clearly still quieter than those of their male counterparts. In an amusing feature in the Telegraph, Bryony Gordon revealed that two women we would consider “strong,” Emily Maitlis and Fay Weldon, both hesitate to speak up in male company.

Online, the risk of sounding shrill or hectoring is significantly lower and it seems that more of us are using social media to speak our minds.  The next step is to even things up further.  Perhaps we should aim for more engineering-focused girls on Google+ and artistically-minded men using Pinterest. More importantly, however, we should aim to transfer the equality of social media into the rest of our lives. 

Xanthe Vaughan Williams (@xanthevw), co-founder and director, Fourth Day PR.